In Covington v. Great Basin Unified Air Pollution Control District (2019) 43 Cal.App.5th 867, the Fifth District Court of Appeal affirmed in part the judgement of the trial court by holding that the District is the proper CEQA lead agency and that permit requirements provide substantial evidence to support the EIR’s fugitive emissions estimates for a proposed geothermal power project; and reversed in part by holding that the District’s feasibility assessment of a mitigation measure proposed by EIR commenters was flawed and required more “reasoned analysis.”
In July 2014, the District certified the Casa Diablo IV Geothermal Development Project joint document EIR/EIS prepared for a proposed geothermal energy facility located on national forest land in Mono County. The project was proposed by Ormat Nevada, Inc., and Ormat Technologies, Inc. (“project proponents”) to be located adjacent to an existing geothermal power complex in an area that has been developed for geothermal activity since 1984. The joint document was prepared by the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Forest Service, and the District, with the state agency serving as the CEQA lead agency. The project was designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and dependence on fossil fuels by using heat extracted from water pumped from a deep geothermal reservoir to fuel a closed-loop system that would ultimately produce electricity. The reaction, however, would produce n-pentane (normal pentane)—a non-toxic reactive organic gas but a precursor to ozone—which would leak in some amount leak from the system and result in fugitive emissions. The EIR concluded that the amount of fugitive emissions would not exceed 410 pounds per day.
The Laborer’s International Union of North America Local Union No. 783 and certain individual members (“Petitioners”) filed a petition for writ of mandate against the District and project proponents as real parties in interest claiming that the EIR’s fugitive emissions conclusions were not supported by substantial evidence, that the District was an improper lead agency, and that the District erred in its feasibility analysis for measures to further mitigate fugitive emissions. The trial court denied the petition in full. Petitioners appealed.
District is Proper Lead Agency
Petitioners argued that Mono County, not the District, was the proper CEQA lead agency as defined in Guidelines section 15051, subdivision (b), because it was the agency with more “‘general governmental powers’” over the project. While the Court agreed that “‘normally’” a county would be the CEQA lead, as the first non-federal agency to act on the project, the District was qualified under Guidelines section 15052, subdivision (c), to act as lead. As further evidence, the Court pointed out that, for a while, the District appeared to be the only involved state agency because of its unique permit authority over an otherwise federalized project. The Court further reasoned that the County’s involvement is minimal in comparison because the project requires “only” a conditional use permit from the County for a “small portion” of its pipeline, which gave it lesser responsibility for “approving the project as a whole,” thereby making the District the proper CEQA lead.
Permit Provides Substantial Evidence
Petitioners also argued that “the record does not contain substantial evidence to support the [EIR’s] conclusion that the Project’s n-pentane [fugitive] emissions will be limited to 410 pounds per day.” The EIR did not, in fact, include emissions calculations. But, the District countered that it provided total emissions numbers to Petitioner’s counsel under a public records act request prior to EIR certification. And, after EIR certification, it sent Petitioner’s counsel additional emissions data, albeit with some redactions. The District further argued that project compliance with permit requirements that limit daily fugitive emissions to 410 pounds per day provides substantial evidence to support the EIR’s conclusion that the project will not exceed that limitation. The Court agreed and cited to several cases for support, including Oakland Heritage Alliance v. City of Oakland (2011) 195 Cal.App.4th 884 and Laurel Heights Improvement Assn. v. Regents of University of California (1988) 47 Cal.3d 376, where other courts held that “compliance with performance standards is a substitute for substantial evidence.” The Court also pointed out that the EIR contained several mitigation measures to lessen impacts from project fugitive emissions.
Mitigation Feasibility Assessment Lacks “Reasoned Analysis”
Petitioners then argued that additional feasible mitigation measures existed to further reduce fugitive emissions, provided by commenters on the Draft EIR, and that the District abused its discretion in finding them infeasible. The District countered that the project’s required use of “‘best available technology’” and “‘state of the art equipment’” was enough to reduce impacts to less than significant, thereby rendering additional measures irrelevant. The Court, while not invalidating the District’s conclusion, required it to provide a “good faith, reasoned response” explaining why the specific technologies suggested by commenters, which are successfully used in other industrial facilities, could not be used for the project to further reduce impacts. Without such explanation, the Court contended that the EIR would not contain “a sufficient degree of analysis to enable decision makers to make an intelligent and informed decision,” pursuant to Guidelines section 15151.
– Casey Shorrock